One of the things about you that I find interesting is this dichotomy between your macho image and your sensitivity as an artist.
Iām a bit of an enigma, arenāt I?
You are indeed. [Laughter.] And thatās what we have to figure out here.
Well, why not? Havenāt you seen some great football players, the toughest guys in the world, who love to sit there and paint flowers? I love beautiful things. I donāt think that itās so strange; usually an artists is sort of a delicate type and sensitive and all that!
Yeah, sort of nerdish.
I suppose. I prefer sports and physical things, and yet I had this talent to look at beautiful things and enjoy them. But I donāt know itās so odd, itās just unusual.
Of course your art reflects both sides of you.
I am all those things. I can be very tough ā I donāt think Iāve ever been unfair or nasty (although there are those who would argue that). [Laughter.] But really, if a person is straight with me they will never be bothered by me. I just react to guys who stab me in the back. I donāt do it to people, and I cannot understand people who turn around and double-cross you and put a knife in your ribs. I just donāt get it. I try to be fair, I try to go through life giving all the love I canā¦When you see my art, even the apparently violent stuff, I do it with love. I try to entertain; I try to always make it appear that the hero is going to win no matter what. Thereās no gore or things that are ugly in it, in spite of the violent nature of the stuff.
Do you think thereās a danger of making violence look beautiful, enticing?
Oh, I guess thatās open to interpretation. I certainly have done that. But Iām only expressing the scene, and if it happens, it happens. Do you find anything offensive in some of my most powerful paintings?
And you know others have tried it and it gets gory and just ugly. Thatās a matter of taste.
You once said that: āTaste is what separates the men from the boys.ā
True. I just seem to know what works and what doesnāt work, and if something offends me, itās out of there. So even with villains, thereās always a bit of humor. I donāt want you to hate them totally. And the heroes, of course, are extreme. The women are extreme; everythingās extreme. I guess that stems from my frustration as a young guy. There were so many wonderful painters and artists, and I always felt that they didnāt go far enough. Iād look at their work and think, āThatās so great, the technique is so greatā¦and yet the action looks just a little bit restrained.ā Itās like the old movies ā remember how restrained they were? Then I recall when I saw the first James Bond movie, how suddenly action seemed real: āThatās the stuff Iāve been wanting to see!ā I always had to go extreme, with the women, the heroesā¦I just couldnāt be cool, like Foster. I really donāt think my artās that far out in left field, either. I really believe thatās the way things look. If you donāt think so, watch football: Guys hitting and flying! The impact is tremendous!
Physical violence can be very ugly ā but do you also find something beautiful about it?
Certainly not killing or bloodshed. But I think itās the action sense of it, the rhythmic quality of a great athlete, a great warrior ā and against the villains, who I generally portray as a little awkward and sloppy. But of course, the hero, to be convincing, has to look the part. He has to be the epitome of catlike grace and power. So I set them apart that way. No matter what situation theyāre in, you feel totally confident, just by the look of them. The villains move differently ā awkward and gropingā¦Theyāre gonna get theirs. [Laughs.] I want the reader to look at it and feel perfectly happy and satisfied with that. The threat is there, but I think for the most part I always suggest that they have a way out, somehow.
Thereās an intense athleticism and a gracefulness about your work that has nothing to do with muscle-bound brutishness.
Sure, because muscle-bound, Iām against. Although my figures are muscular.
Muscular, yes, but theyāre not muscle-bound in the Schwarzeneggerian sense.
No, I donāt think thereās anything particularly graceful or catlike about the physique of that type. As an ex-athlete, I think I know what creates power in a human figure. And it isnāt a wasp-like waist and huge, fat, overblown thighs. They mean nothing. Theyāre utterly useless, except for posing, and even then theyāre disgusting. [Groth laughs.] But powerful legs are not necessarily heavy; great buttocks make for power and strength and grace; a good back, forearms and shoulders. Particularly forearms. Biceps donāt mean a hell of a lot, not as much as triceps. That creates certain types of power. Weight lifters develop biceps on top of their biceps and keep going from there. And they develop all the wrong muscles because they think itās cool. But if youāre ever seen a lumberjack, who chops wood all day, youāll notice the powerful wrists and forearms and triceps. And the chest should never be overblown. It should be nice and square and tight. Tight muscles. They could be fit, they could be lean, but thereās just a certain type of muscle that suggests someone who can really move quickly and has tremendous power and speedā¦in lieu of a bodybuilder. I mean, even the way bodybuilders walk: Their arms stick out, they walk silly and always want to appear like theyāre flexing. [Laughter.]
Yeah, they usually waddle.
I was asking Gil Kane about your career in comics, and he had some terrific things to say about you.
Like what? I havenāt seen Gil Kane in a thousand years.
He was talking about when he first met you: I think the ā40s, when he said you were working for Bernard Baily.
He wrote something about that.
I read it one of those magazines that people send me. He wrote something about being a kid who could draw like a whiz, and all of that stuff.
He was working for Bernard Bailyās studio in the ā40s, and when he left, he said you replaced him there. He said, āI would surprise myself by doing six pencils in a day. I donāt even know how the fuck I did it because I wasnāt really āāā
Yeah, he said, āI donāt even know how the fuck I did it because I really wasnāt any good. But I was able to do it, and Bernie [Baily] was very impressed with that and started feeding me stuff. I was ultimately replaced by John Giunta and Frank Frazetta.ā
Oh, that doesnāt make sense. All I did was one story, and actually John Giunta was the guy who worked for Baily, and I was the kid who had created the character, and I guess I did the pencils, and Giunta proceeded to really go over them big time, and he did the inking. I was only a kid. I never inked before, at least not with a brush. I didnāt even know how it was done. I guess I must have been about 16.
He said, āGiunta took over all he strips I was doing, and he did them a thousand times better.ā
Well, Giunta was good. He was excellent. He had a great touch. I donāt remember Gil Kane at that point.
Is that right?
Really, how could I?
Well he said, āHe brought in Frank Frazetta who did all his early stuff for Bernie Baily, and then he went ā ā
No, no, no. I tell you, I only did the one job.
Just the one job?
Far as I know. I might have done a spot here and there. But I didnāt replace anybody.
Gil went on to say, āFrank was 16 years old, that son of a bitch, and it just stung to take a look at the facility of the Goddamn stuff. He was just doing penciling at the time, but it was so good.
Hmm. Thatās very sweet. But I donāt think I was that good. That stuff wasnāt bad. I did learn fast, thatās for sure.
In an interview weāre going to be running with George Evans, he recalls you working at Fiction House in the ā40s.
He said, āWould you believe at one point they brought in Frank Frazetta to do some work?ā
Yeah ā to erase their pencils!
[Laughter.] Thatās right! And he said, āI think he was only 15 or 16 at the time; the stuff just flowed out of his fingertips. He did a few of the ruled-in panel borders, and a little of the cleaning up, but he would have his own sketchbook, and page by page heād spend his time conscripting his own stories and adventures in pencil.ā
If I could back up even farther, you were taught art as a youngster by an artist named Michael Falanga; my understanding is that he sort of took you under his wing.
At art school: but that goes back to childhood. I was 8 years old.
But he taught you for quite a few years ā
Well, he didnāt teach me anything, really. It was more like a club! And it had all kinds of people; theyād all suddenly turn up and sit there doing their thing! There were plaster casts of all the famous sculptures. And people would sit and either paint self-portraits, or paint and draw in charcoal; anything you wanted to do. And heād just wander around, and come over, and give them a few tips.
My understanding was that he was really impressed by your talent and sort of took you under his wing.
He was. He went crazy when he first saw this 8-year-old drawing. He couldnāt believe it! And he had great plans for me. When I got a little older, he was going to send me off to Italy.
Did he try to guide you in a certain direction?
He would come in and see what I would be doing ā early on I was doing a lot of charcoal and that sort of thing. They had these wonderful plaster casts. Hercules, Michelangeloās David, Venus De Milo, etcā¦I guess I learned about the form, because I was just drawing them. I would render them, and youād get this wonderful light and shadow. Heād come and see where I was working, and he might say, āVery nice, very nice. But perhaps if you did this or that.ā But thatās about it. We never had any great conversations. He spoke very broken English. He kind of left you on your own. I learned more from my friends there. I met a couple of guys: we had a lot of fun together; they were a little older than me. It was more fun and games than anything else.
I assume you were still drawing in your early teens.
What was your conception of yourself as an artist? Did you have any idea what you wanted to do with your talent?
For some reason, I always had this urge to be doing comic books, and then from there, newspaper strips. I could always see that far ahead. And I thought about being a fine artistā¦not that I saw any real future in it; maybe Iād just paint for the hell of it. Just hang them up on the wall. I didnāt think anybody would pay me for them. There were no paperbacks around for me even to consider that field. Comics seemed to be the way to go. You knew about Al Capp and Milton Caniff and all the other guys. They were making all kinds of money, and they were household names! And thatās what I looked forward to. Of course, he thought that was terrible when I mentioned it. He still wanted greater things for me; I donāt know exactly what. He was going to ship me off to Italy, andā¦who knows? I really doubt that even going to Italy would have changed Frank Frazetta. What I finally did I would have done: I had to tell stories, I guess.
I could create characters so easily. They had to have something in front of them. And I didnāt. Thatās what amazed them. But they saw no future in it. Falanga said, āWhat a waste. What a waste.ā He said, āYou should be in Italy, and paint the street scene, and become a very famous fine artiste.ā And that didnāt thrill me!
When you were growing up, I assume you read newspaper strips.
Yes. I thought that was the ultimate!
Sure seemed like it. I mean, Jesus, if you heard about the money these guys were making, and apparently having fun doing it. And thatās what I dreamed of.
What cartoonists impressed you originally? Would it have been Milton Caniffā¦?
As a very young guy, I think it was Jack Kirby. Certainly Foster always, long before Kirby. As a matter of fact, I was not even 5 years old, Iād seen Hal Foster and loved his work. And then, somewhere down the line, I kind of forgot about him. And I discovered Foster later on, and then came Superman, of courseā¦just think of the years and what was popular and that was what I was stuck on.
You were the perfect age, too.
Yeah. It was during my teenage years that Captain America was hot! Of course, Caniff was really hot. A lot of guys were hot, now that I think about it. I always loved Segarās Popeye.
I was going to ask you if you liked the humor strips.
Well, I seemed to be able to do stuff that was humorous. And also, going the other way and get very dramatic with action. I like to do everything.
You were fond of Jack Kirby?
I loved Jack Kirby. Jack Kirby was fabulous, even though he wasnāt a great draftsman. He didnāt paint or anything. And certainly wasnāt versatile. But boy, get that āSlam, Bang, Powā stuff and he was great.
Did you know Kirby at all?
I didnāt meet Kirby until only a few years ago, believe it or not.
Is that right?
First time. It was really funny. They were having a big to-do for me over in California, and Jack showed up. He was kind of startled when I told him I was such a big fan of his. He looked at me, āYouāve got to be kidding.ā It was kind of cute.
Now when youāre learning to draw, did you study people like [George] Bridgman?
No, actually, that happened when I worked for Standard and I was starting to get pretty steady work, funny animal things very early on, and some guy named Ralph Mayo was the art director. And he loved my work. Heās the one that really opened the door for me very quickly by suggesting that I learn my anatomy. And I stupidly looked at him, and said, āWhatās that?ā I was being a little facetious. He proceeded to give me these two books to take home and devote my life to studying them. One was the Bridgman book on anatomy, and the other one was by [Victor] Pirard. I took them home and brought them back the next day. And he looked at me in dismay, and said, āWhy did you bring them back?ā I said, āWell, Iām finished with them. Thatās it.ā And he looked, and he grinned. āYeah, a wise guy.ā
What I did was that I copied every page in each book. I stayed up all night; I just made my mind to copy every single drawing in each book. I knew it would just stay in my mind forever. And he roared with laughter. And I said, āWell, youāll see. Youāll see.ā Next job I got, it seemed I actually had learned anatomy. Certainly not a thousand percent, but the improvement was evident. It was like day and night. And he said, āYou bloody villain, you actually did learn your anatomy.ā He was a very English guy, you know. Thatās the gist of my anatomy studies, really. Thatās all I ever did. You still keep learning as you go along. I remembered a lot of it. I drew them from the skeleton right on up. Thatās all very good. But itās more what you do with it. Itās the lighting, itās the action, itās the action you select: itās not just how well you draw the anatomy. Whatās the point of it? If you know your anatomy, and the figures are boring, it doesnāt help.
He knew his anatomy, but his figures were boring as hell. Mine were crazy, they were jumping around, they were funny, they had a lot of action to them, and so on. And now that Iāve learned something about the anatomy, they looked far, far better than they had before. It went on from there. About that time, I got the job over at Magazine Enterprises doing Dan Brand and Tippy, one or two features for Standard, and that was about it for a while. I was doing all right.